I was 14 years old and I had just come out of my 10th chiropractic appointment in two weeks. The pain was endless. Climbing out of bed was an Olympic event, putting on socks was a frontal lobotomy, and God forbid I needed to pick up anything from the floor. I thought to myself, what kind of teenager needs a chiropractor? Aren’t those places reserved for the elderly or seriously injured? How on earth was an otherwise healthy teenager in so much pain for no reason? But here I was. Practically every day. Trudging away trying to fix this mystery sciatic misalignment that had blindsided me.
Flashback 5 months, it was the holiday season. I had received some gift money and already had it slated for a new pair of shoes. Highlighter orange…tacky yes, but style searching is what teenage years are for, right? After scouring the web I found them on a huge sale! Half-off! The only problem was they were a half-size smaller than my normal shoe size. No big deal. Cramped feet for some badass trendsetting? Worth it. Also, I figured my feet would stretch them out anyway. And worst case scenario, there was a shoe stretcher in the house. You know those wooden contraptions to help with narrow dress shoes. I didn’t know they wouldn’t help with length and I didn’t care.
Ding! The doctor will see you now. Another 4 weeks passed and I’d been able to taper the chiropractic visits to once a week. Then every other week, then to once a month, and then not at all. Along with my diminishing doctor visits, my shoes had died off too. The once brilliant orange was a rotting pumpkin, the soles were tattered, and my big toe was out.
Flash forward a decade. I’d graduated high school, graduated college, and married my dream girl. I’d found a mind-numbing, but socially acceptable corporate job (don’t worry we’ll cover this in another post) and was making good money. Then one morning without warning, I woke and felt that old familiar twinge. Like the Greek Sirens luring me towards a rocky coast, I felt my imminent doom approaching. Luckily, after 50 some odd chiropractic visits, your vertebrae do become more mobile. And after a couple of days of self-administered spinal adjustments, the pain subsided. I tried to examine every aspect of my life to determine what had caused the pain to return. What could have possibly been the same between now, as a working adult, and my teenage years that would cause back pain? Was it that I played soccer through high school and now was a runner? Could running be the problem? The answer eventually revealed itself in a far different form than I’d anticipated. The problem as a teenager was with my ill-fitted orange sneaks and as the corporate lackey…my dress code required oxfords. Enter the barefoot revolution.
The Barefoot Revolution.
Properly aligned feet can prevent body-wide injury, increase hip and lower torso mobility, and improve overall fitness. Your feet are the foundation of your body. A weak house foundation can cause problems from cracked pipes and electrical shorts, to roof leakages. Your body is no different. Faulty foot and ankle mechanics lead to knee, back, neck, and a whole host of other pain. If your feet don’t or can’t operate like they’re supposed to, you limit your own excellence.
Before we check out the badassery of YOUR feet, let’s take a quick look at the structure of the foot. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you too much here and the high notes will surely impress all your dinner party friends! Your feet contain 52 bones (one-quarter of the bones in the human body), 66 joints (each with 6 degrees of articulation), and over 200 muscles and connective tissues. The forefoot (front of the foot) is comprised the five toes connected at the ball of the foot to long bones (metatarsals) that extend along the top of the foot. This connection point equalizes pressure at the ball of your foot and supports half of your body’s weight. The midfoot (middle of the foot) has five uniquely shaped bones that form the foot’s arch acting as a shock absorber. The hindfoot (back of the foot) is composed of three joints that link the midfoot to the ankle, which forms a connecting hinge to your lower leg bones (the tibia and fibula). The heel bone is the largest in the foot and is cushioned on the bottom by a layer of fat. See that wasn’t so bad!
Now whether you believe in a higher power and/or the theory of evolution (or anything else really), our bodies have been crafted for the Earth’s environment. Your feet are no different. Your feet are a marvel of design genius and a careful adaptation to the natural world. However, the vast majority of the shoes we regularly wear remove the ability for our feet to do their job. They do this by trying to support your body instead of allowing your feet to do the work. Unfortunately, only YOUR feet can support YOUR frame the way it’s meant to be supported. Meaning the best support you’ll ever find is fixed to the end of your leg.
Imagine a group of 50 people with a similar build, ethnicity, age, activity levels, height, weight, etc. For all intents and purposes, each member of the group is the same…but not really right?! If you create a mental snapshot of what the group might look like, you’d likely picture a group of people with subtle differences between them. Some might be tan, some pale, freckled, different postures, more or fewer wrinkles. And let’s not just limit ourselves to physical attributes either. You’d have extroverts, introverts, those who drink beer, and those who hate horror movies. It would be shocking if they looked like the Agent Smith fight scene from the Matrix right?
So why would their feet be the same? They wouldn’t! Yes, the basic structure and how the foot functions would be similar, but no two people would have exactly the same feet. The reason for this lies in the simple fact that your feet are your foundation. Most shoes impair your feet’s ability to act as they were designed to.
Quick side note.
As an engineer, the fact that shoes were ever marketed with arch support is absurd. Arches, by definition, are self-supporting!! Do ancient Mesopotamian arches standing for 2000+ years need support? No. And neither do your feet. Attempting to support an arch weakens it and encourages collapse. Unlike the stereotypical millennial, the arch can support itself.
Back to the good stuff!
Ideally, we wouldn’t wear anything on our feet. However, unless you’d like to be escorted to the nearest mental institution, the next time your walk through your local grocery store I’d suggest putting something on to cover those sexy leg conclusions. There are also outside factors like cold weather, rocky terrain, hot sand, or your day job. So having something to protect/cover your feet is a necessary evil. The best shoe should act as a thicker more durable layer of skin on the bottom of your feet. The material needs to be durable but very flexible (like skin!). It also needs to allow your toes to splay, contract, and move as necessary. The Rarámuri or Tarahumara people, a native tribe located in Mexico, have been wearing huarache sandals for hundreds of years with little to none of the common issues we moderners face. If you want to check out more about them the book Born to Run is an outstanding resource.
Admittedly, calling this a ‘shoe’ is a stretch at best and won’t work for everyone. A quick google search will give you a variety of barefoot shoe options for you, but knowing what to look for is key.
The Perfect Barefoot Shoe:
- Wide toe box to allow toes to splay, contract, and move as necessary. (The toe box is the area at the end of the shoe that houses your toes. Keeping general reason in mind, the bigger the toe box, the better.)
- Flexible sole that allows your foot to bend and flex naturally. (Think disposable bottom of foot skin.)
- As minimal cushion as possible. (Again we’re trying to encourage your feet to act naturally, so force the feet to provide the shock absorption.)
- Zero drop. (Drop is how much higher the heel of the shoe is than the toe of the shoe…if your foot needed more drop your heel would have a thicker layer of fat. Again, don’t fuck with what your feet do naturally!)
- No ankle support. (There are barefoot boots out there, but wearing these day-in and day-out is not ideal, so try to limit your time in ankle supporting shoes.)
What about socks?
I’ve found that anything but toe socks restrict my natural toe movement. After trying out a few different brands I like Injinji socks best, but feel free to experiment with others. Although I’ve personally found that toe socks are the way to go, general consensus says that as long as socks aren’t tight at the toe box, your foot should be unimpaired. You’ll have to do some testing for yourself here.
A word of caution.
Launching head, or foot-first into going barefoot is going to be most beneficial if your body has been properly prepared first. Just as a new runner or weight lifter shouldn’t train for hours on day 1, you should ease into going barefoot. A super easy way to start is to simply take your shoes off upon coming home after work or anytime you wander into the house. And then keep them off until you head out the door. Allowing your feet to contact the ground unencumbered provides the feedback your body needs to make positive steps in the right direction (pun intended).
From here you’ll want to focus on foot mechanics. If you’re like me, your feet have been crammed into cleats, sneakers, or dress shoes for years. So simply switching to barefoot may not be enough. Or if you’re impatient, uhumm that’s me…, then you may want to speed up the process. The biggest issue I encountered was that my toes had an inclination to overlap, investing in a simple set of toe spacers works best for this. Don’t get carried away here though, toe spacers are a temporary aid. All we’re looking to do is give your feet the opportunity to do what they’re built to do and let them do the rest. Focusing on aligning your feet properly also helps your feet do what they naturally do well. You can do this while cooking dinner, on your lunch break, or whenever you get 5 minutes.
Manipulating toes, feet, and ankles into proper alignment:
- Stand and make sure feet are pointing straight out in front of you (Most people tend to flare their feet out, so having them straight may feel slightly pigeon-toed.)
- Push your ankles out (If you’re wearing fluffy socks on a polished wood floor your feet should slide apart. We don’t want your legs to spread, but the intended motion will engage the appropriate muscles.)
- Emphasize pressing the base of your big toe into the ground. (With your ankles out and toes pressing into the floor, you should feel the arches of your feet rising. How awesome is that!)
- Spread your toes apart as much as possible creating a gap between each toe, especially the big toe and second toe. (Feel free to manually separate your toes with your fingers.)
That’s it! Feet straight, ankles out, big toe down, and spread your toes. Super easy!!
What about flat feet or high arches?
There are two types of flat footedness. Rigid and flexible. A very small percentage of the population has rigid flat feet. Rigid flat feet are a result of malformed bones within the feet and are only fixed with surgery. Psst…If you had rigid flat feet you’d know about it. Flexible flat feet are just that, flexible. Studies have shown that going barefoot can help to raise the foot’s arch strengthening that perfect shock absorber.
Whether you have flat feet or high arches is irrelevant. Not to sound like a broken record, but your feet are perfect for you. The height of your arch is primarily genetically determined and what matters is strong arches. The best way to strengthen them is by going barefoot and engaging the muscles.
Your feet are your foundation and affect everything above them! Got a bad back? Bad knees? Flat feet? Put your feet back to work. Moral of the story is if your body’s got a problem area, check your feet first before addressing the pain’s source.
Fight for greatness. Show your grit. Pursue excellence.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
Barefoot Strong: Unlock the Secrets to Movement Longevity by Dr. Emily Splichal